More pain for California’s forced sterilization patients

Stacy Cordova holds a photo of her aunt Mary Franco in Azusa on July 5, 2021. Franco was a victim of California's forced sterilization program when she was 13 in 1934. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

Patients who were already victimized once by California’s forced sterilization program — and who are running out of time to claim state compensation — were nearly victimized again.

This time, it’s because of a data breach that exposed their personal and medical information.

Last December, a researcher looking into the sterilization of thousands of female patients and inmates — a practice that was sanctioned since the 1900s and had only ceased in 2013 — was viewing records from the California State Archives. Records 75 years and older are publicly accessible, but a digital copy of microfilm the researcher viewed was mislabeled and actually included more recent information, from 1948 to 1954.

The records were eventually pulled and redacted from the state Archives after the researcher told officials. But personal information, including patients’ full names, birthdates and family medical histories were exposed, as well as medical information such as diagnoses and dates of sterilization.

California’s secretary of state office, which oversees the state Archives, quietly posted a notice on its website on March 10 about what it called a “privacy incident of historical health records” and has been notifying those who have been affected. For those who suspect they are part of the breach, the secretary of state offered a FAQ with a few tips on identity theft. An office spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

These kinds of records are used by researchers to help verify victims and estimate the number of living survivors.

  • Nicole Novak, co-director of the Sterilization and Social Justice Lab research team: “It’s remarkable that these archival records exist. When used appropriately and under the correct security standards and ethical guidelines, they are a really powerful resource for documenting the scope and scale of the state’s eugenics program.”

By 1979, long after the peak of the 1930s eugenics movement, California sterilized an estimated 20,000 people, deemed unfit to reproduce, without their consent. The practice ended in 1979 for state hospitals and in 2010 for state prisons, when eugenics laws were finally repealed. 

An exposé from The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013 revealed 148 women were sterilized without proper approval from 2006 to 2010, and a separate state audit found that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation oversaw the illegal sterilization of 144 inmates from 2005 to 2013.

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a compensation program that pays as much as $25,000 per patient. The program is budgeted at $7.5 million and ends Dec. 31. Despite public outreach to contact more patients, plus radio and TV ads, it’s unlikely that California will find and compensate all victims. Through February, about 60 claims had been approved, totaling $915,000.

  • Lynda Gledhill, chief executive of the California Victim Compensation Board, to Capitol Weekly: “This is a very hard to reach population. The estimates are that there are maybe 600 of those people still alive. And as you can imagine, they are quite elderly. And if they were in state hospitals or were incarcerated, their relationship with state government is not that great so they can be very hard to reach.”

Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, a Los Angeles Democrat who authored the compensation law, said in an emailed statement to CalMatters that the disclosure of personal information is “concerning because we do not want to impose any additional trauma on these survivors whom have suffered enough.” 

But safeguards should prevent more problems, she added, and this incident should not distract from the compensation program itself.

  • Carrillo: “As we set out to rectify these past wrongs, it is essential that we take all necessary steps to find and compensate survivors.”

Leave a Reply

The Exedra comments section is an essential part of the site. The goal of our comments policy is to help ensure it is a vibrant yet civil space. To participate, we ask that Exedra commenters please provide a first and last name. Please note that comments expressing congratulations or condolences may be published without full names. (View our full Comments Policy.)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *